Cross-Examination: Is our democracy in trouble? Public trust in politicians and news media

Lydia Buckley, Content Contributor

Politicians are sometimes associated with shady dealings, broken promises, deceit and propaganda. Regardless of whether this stereotype is accurate or not, it is one that is commonly held by the public. In fact, a recent survey prepared by Research New Zealand ranked politicians as the second least trusted occupation by the New Zealand public.[1]

A glance at any newspaper would demonstrate that the media is largely responsible for perpetuating this stereotype. Two years ago, Len Brown’s extramarital affair became front-page news throughout the country just after he had been elected for another term as Auckland’s mayor.[2] Only a few months ago a scandal arose concerning five ministers who planned to take their wives with them on an all-expenses paid business trip to Europe funded by the taxpayer.[3] These stories, and countless others like them, work to portray politicians as being somewhat dishonest and self-interested.

However, it is important to note that in the same survey, journalism was the only occupation to rank lower than politicians as the least trusted role as perceived by the New Zealand public.[4]

ejp-trust-and-confidencePoliticians have an extremely important role in society. De Lucas and Añón claim that they are “essential to democracy” because they are part of an elected body that represents the people in Parliament.[5] The media also have a vital role relating to politics and are often regarded as the ‘fourth estate’,  or society’s watchdog.[6] This refers to the fact that they are the body that keeps politicians accountable for their actions by reporting back to the public. It has the potential to be a very effective machine for this purpose as media is easily accessible to the vast majority of the population and has the ability to relay, in layman’s terms, the consequences and implications of politicians’ actions back to the public. However, it can sometimes appear as though this role has become more about selling an interesting story to the audience rather than about the media fulfilling a duty to inform the public. For instance, the media coverage of Auckland Mayor Len Brown’s affair attacked his character and suggested that if Brown can conceal an illicit relationship then he is also not to be trusted with regard to his position in government. Although not endorsing Brown’s infidelity, it is hard to see a clear link between his affair and his ability to perform his duty as Auckland’s mayor. Is it relevant to align a politician’s occupational aptitude with the mistakes they make in their personal lives?

An issue to be addressed here is that the media is potentially holding politicians to account to the public over matters that are irrelevant to their careers, or at least placing too much emphasis on these factors. With regard to this matter, it is important to remember that the media is an industry and aims to make a profit. The fact that there are countless platforms and outlets that sell news media is beneficial in that it ensures that information is widely accessible to the public, but it also creates greater competition to attract and retain an audience. This means that news has essentially become a product designed to be sold to the public.

This is likely to be one of the reasons behind why the public has so little faith in the media industry. Journalists are more inclined to write stories that will sell and make money rather than ones that have the purpose of informing their audience. Unfortunately, drama and scandal are much easier to sell; this is especially the case with politics, which most members of the public often perceive as being dry and complicated.[7] In this way, the media has become more prone to  sensationalizing news stories and presenting them in a way that places more emphasis on scandalous scoops and “gotcha politics” rather than informed, impartial reporting. For this reason, the media is a major source of the cynicism directed towards politicians.

This correspondence between the media and politicians raises several significant issues relating to the function of each body in a democratic society.

Firstly, it disrupts the relationship between politicians and the public. In a democracy, voting is an intrinsic part of representative politics. The public has the opportunity to cast their vote in order to select a number of politicians who will act for them in the wider political sphere. Della Vigna and Kaplan argue that media bias has a real and lasting effect on the opinions of audiences, regardless of if they are educated or not.[8] If the media is the predominant source of information about politicians, then sensationalized news stories are going to affect the way these potential delegates are presented to voters. Similarly, Chipman suggests that consuming biased news stories affects audience’s ideologies and makes them acquire a greater partiality for news stories of that kind.[9] This means that the public become more likely to respond to biased, subjective news rather than serious, informative stories.

ejp-journos-politiciansThis does not only affect the interests of the politicians attempting to win support and accrue votes; it is also detrimental to the voters if the media does not accurately depict politicians. It could mean that voters are less likely to make informed decisions about who they want to represent them. This is injurious to the smooth running of a democratic society because ultimately it does not reflect the will of the voters. The public will prefer the politicians that the media also favours. Therefore, it is arguable that the media is just as important to a democratic society as politicians themselves since they have so much sway on the public.

Of course, it is important that politicians put their best foot forward when placing themselves in the limelight. As public representatives they do have an obligation to act responsibly and a reasonable expectation that they will be placed under some amount of public scrutiny based on the nature of their role. However, the media also needs to be accountable and exercise the influence that it has with regard to how politicians are viewed responsibly.

The media and politicians both play very important roles in a democratic society and it is detrimental to public interest if the public do not feel as though they can trust them. However, they are both linked together and have the ability to help each other in order to make New Zealand a more fair place to live. The media needs to be held to account for the stories it produces. Something to consider is whether there should be more checks placed on the media in order to establish that the news it conveys is impartial and factually accurate. However, there are many issues and blurred lines to do with this regarding the right to freedom of speech and the public’s right to be informed. Essentially, it comes down to a balancing act between public interest and the public’s interest. On the surface, the public may be more interested in a shallow sense in political scandal. On the other hand, ultimately what is more important for the public good is that politicians are fairly represented so that voters can make informed decisions.

This is also, in part, the responsibility of the public.  It is important that people are conscientious media consumers, and be aware that the news is not a guarantee of unbiased information. They should be educated about the fact that there are other factors in play with regard to producing media other than the role of watchdog of society and public informer. Media is a business and a monopoly in which only a few people own numerous sources.

News journalists and politicians each have a vital role in maintaining New Zealand’s democratic principles and these roles often overlap and coincide. For this reason, the fact that both occupations were ranked as the least trustworthy occupations is disturbing because of the implications this has on the New Zealand public. Although it is unrealistic to change the way the entire media industry operates in order to ensure unbiased depictions of politicians and political parties, it is important that their audiences are aware of the prejudices often present in political news and become active consumers rather than taking news stories at face value.

[1] “Trust survey results revealed: MPs, journalists least trusted” New Zealand Herald (online ed, New Zealand, 9 June 2015).

[2] Jared Savage “Mayor Len Brown: The other woman” New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 15 October 2013).

[3] “Five MPs and partners on $138,000 tour of Europe” New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 7 April 2015).

[4] Above n 1.

[5] Javier de Lucas and María José Añón “Democracy, Distrust and the Right to Resist, Today” Critical Legal Thinking (Online ed, 21 January 2013).

[6] Winston Peters “Fourth Estate or Fifth Column? The Media and Politics in New Zealand” (2002) 2 Political Science 69; George A Donohue, Phillip J Tichenor and Clarice N Olien “A Guard Dog Perspective on the Role of Media” (1995) 45 Journal of Communication 115.

[7] Rona Flippo “Sensationalism, Politics and Literacy: What’s going on?” (1997) 79 Phi Delta Kappan 301.

[8] Stefano DellaVigna and Ethan Kaplan “The Fox News effect: Media bias and voting” (2007) 122 The Quarterly Journal of Economics 1187.

[9] Ian Chipman “Ali Yurukoglu: How Biased News Impacts Your Vote” (October 2014) Stanford Graduate School of Business < www.gsb.stanford.edu>.

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